03.11.08 Please, don’t pander
Why do marketers have such a hard time understanding rejuveniles?
Long before social critics began fretting over “the death of the grown up,” marketers were tracking focus group findings on the quickly shifting values, affinities and loyalties of adult consumers (remember the “retro brand” craze of 2001, which relaunched everything from Converse to Radio Flyer?).
Given this early jump and expertise, you’d expect campaigns aimed at rejuveniles to be knowing, or at least reasonably on-target. But the sad fact is that, with few exceptions, ads aimed at rejuveniles evoke cringes, eye rolls and heavy sighs in the very people they’re designed to reach. A few manage to find a way to cleverly capture their fears and aspirations. But the vast majority fall horribly flat, either by regurgitating tired old clichés about childish adults or mistaking garden-variety nostalgia or rebellion for rejuvenile’s complicated but ultimately hopeful natures.
Take the current ad for Oreos Candy Bites, which features a power-suited professional looking out the window of a cab at women blowing bubbles, jumping rope and playing hopscotch. Clearly responding to research showing more adults than ever gravitating toward a brand that has always been associated with kids, Oreo can think of nothing more to say than how wacky and unusual it is. Thus we get women playing hopscotch in heels in the Oreo ad, or worse, businessmen pogo-sticking and hula-hooping in Nestle Crunch’s egregious “For the Kid in You” campaign, which reduced the entire rejuvenile phenomenon down to bubbles and hopscotch.
This is just the sort of cluelessness that causes conniptions in rejuveniles. They may appear silly, but make no mistake: rejuveniles can’t stand being pandered to. They hate seeing themselves represented as starry-eyed goofballs. Never mind that many of them are – in focus groups, many will admit that they felt goofy and starry-eyed the first time they wore a Cocoa Puffs cuckoo bird T-shirt or took a spin on their kid’s tricycle. But the novelty has long since worn off. They’re now either doing those things entirely unselfconsciously, in which case these ads seem hopelessly unhip, or they’ve moved on to another kid centric activity (like assembling Lego spacecraft, or collecting American Girl dolls).
The point is simple: aim at the starting point of a moving target and you’ll miss every time. To keep pace with rejuveniles, you’re better off ignoring surfaces and creating associations with shared values, like their need to stay playful in the face of adult responsibilities, or their impulse to buck the forces of conformity and routine, or their belief that adults are inventing a more flexible, open-ended version of maturity.
11.20.07 Age Norms and Orangey Goodness
Listen to sociologists hold forth on the topic of age norms and you’d be forgiven for dismissing the topic as theoretical hoo-ha with little real-life relevance. But in the course of writing Rejuvenile I became convinced that age norms are in fact an enormously powerful and woefully underexamined social force that exerts influence in the unlikeliest of places.
Take your local gas station or convenience store. Check out the snack display – you’ve got your adult Cape Cod Potato Chips, your teen-leaning Doritos and your kid-targeted Cheetos. What adult in their right mind would eat a snack promoted by a sneaker-clad spokescat? While snackfood giant Frito-Lay doesn’t release market research data, it seems clear that Cheetos have become a major flashpoint in rejuvenile’s assault on age norms—adults all over are embracing the orangey goodness of Chester Cheetah’s favorite snack. Many are content to causally gobble down a bag in the privacy of their workplace cubicle. Others publicly flaunt their Cheetos affiliation, proudly displaying their stained orange fingers to friends and coworkers or posting weird online video clips as proof of their playful, mischievous spirits. Eating ‘em is just the beginning:
• Members of the fabulous a-capella drag act the Kinsey Sicks stick ‘em in their well-powdered noses.
• Pajama-clad brunette tosses ‘em, gobbles ‘em, spits ‘em.
• Talkative co-ed colors her hair to match ‘em.
• Science geeks light ‘em up, dunk ‘em in booze, then down the firey cheesy cocktail (ow!)
- Clearly understimulated Iowans celebrate ‘em as prime tourist attraction.
03.28.07 Look, a Shiny Thing!
To those of us who enjoy the luxury of waxing theoretical, being a rejuvenile is about expressing a mindset. It’s about living a life that places more value in spontaneity and openness than traditional “adult” notions of steadfastness and seriousness.
But make no mistake: being a rejuvenile is also about being a target market. At this very moment, smart and well-compensated account execs are formulating sophisticated campaigns to sell you stuff – you the thirtysomething cubicle farmer, you the grizzled Boomer with the BMW skateboard, you the fiftysomething Arielholic.
No interest in chocolate bars laced with bits of dehydrated rice? What if it possesses the power to release “the kid in you”? Anxious about finding yourself in a tract house with kids and a minivan? Then strike back! Adorn your walls with framed Chris Ware posters, get thee a belly ring, start a garage band!
Not that there’s anything wrong with belly rings, garage bands, or for that matter, being a target market. As players in a highly mediated, ever-more-commercialized new century, we’re all data points in a vast commercial matrix. Pretending to be above such things is futile.
The trick is knowing the difference between what we genuinely want and what we’re being sold. None of us want our mindsets shaped by commercial forces (even if they are). As easy as it is to fall back into tractable, pre-adult neediness – Look, a shiny thing! Wait, I want candy! – we can all agree we’re far better off recognizing a pitch when it comes along and deciding consciously and deliberately whether to accept it.
Me, I reject Nestle Crunch bars and belly rings. Here, though, are a few rejuvenile-targeted goods and services I simply cannot resist:
• The Crayola Crayon Executive Pen. For the truly self-possessed executive, this brass ballpoint pen has the weight and gravitas of the corner office and the cheery playfulness of the romper room. Store it on your desk next to your Executive Set Sea Monkey set and send a clear message: you are not a Dilbert drone.
Hidden Lemonade Stand Easter eggs. Kim & Jason, the reigning rejuvenile power couple from Madison, WI are doing a cool contest in conjunction with their online store the Lemonade Stand – win prizes by locating the hidden Easter eggs nestled among childlike goodies. But be careful– you just might find yourself leavign with an “Adulthood stinks” T-shirt or a copy of their eseential how-to manual Escape Adulthood.
Perpetual Kid – Online retailer for dizzying variety of rejuvenile novelties and doo-dads, organized into categories including “office toys” (banana cell phone cover, crocodile staple remover, Buddha pencil top), “fun fragrances” (Play-Doh Cologne, eau-du-birthday cake) and “things that shoot” (marshmallow shooters, airzookas, rubber band guns).
• Big Fun toy store. A friend visiting Cleveland happened upon what she describes as rejuvenile nirvana – a cluttered and crazed collection of new and used toys, models, action figures, board games and lunchboxes. Owner Steve Presser has a thing for vintage commercial tie-ins, from the obvious (Star Wars, Care Bears) to the obscure (M.A.S.K., Mr. T). No website; visit them on your next jaunt to Ohio: 1827 Coventry Rd, Cleveland Ohio.
09.11.06 Fisher Price Fonts
Toyification describes how everyday adult stuff is getting less utilitarian and more toy-like. In the book’s chapter on toys, I look at how cars, computers, cell phones and even vacuum cleaners are now designed, marketed and used more as playthings than tools of productivity.
Florida designer Nick Dominguez has a nice post applying this idea to web and graphic design. The look and feel of many new brands and logos, he writes, is “overwhelmingly toylike or Fisher Pricey.” Examples of toyification in web design include big bubbly buttons, big text and bold colors and gradients.
You can see the phenomenon in all its bright and cheery glory scanning this portfolio of recently redesigned logos for firms selling everything from insurance to mobile phone service. Businesslike, dignified, subdued, muted tones and shapes have been replaced by an open, friendly and chunky style – indeed, most of these designs look swiped straight from the romper room. The pictured logo for photo sharing company Tabblo even comes complete with a smiley face. Bright and cheery blues and oranges dominate other designs, with lime green jokingly called the “official color of Web 2.0.”
Can’t wait for the new Lehman Brothers logo with the star-eyed unicorn floating over the rainbow waterfall…
I’m an admirer but hardly an expert in graphics, so this is all new and unfamilar territory for me; anyone else besides Mr. Dominguez notice a shift toward the toylike?
07.06.06 Eat a Crunch Bar, Be a Rejuvenile
Another entry in the bulging it-just-doesn’t-get-more-rejuvenile-than-this file:
On the morning commute yesterday, I found myself idling in front of a billboard picturing two guys in business suits, legs dangling from opposite ends of a teeter totter, happily munching on Nestle Crunch bars. The slogan: “For the kid in you.”
The companion website includes a nifty splash page showing a businessman who takes a bite of a Crunch Bar and is immediately catapulted up on a pogo stick, along with flash animation of much happy hula-hooping and trampoline-bouncing. The TV spot (archived on site under “Crunch News") is a crafty split screen montage that shows an adult on his morning commute (while pedaling a big wheel), a woman on an escalator (while riding down a slide) and a fellow going up a staircase (while climbing a treehouse ladder).
This is all on-the-nose in terms of reaching the rejuvenile market… perhaps too much so. Like last year’s Toyota “Put it in Play” campaign, which associated the latest line of Corollas and Celicas with favorite kidgames like tag and dodgeball, this one is so obvious that I think it may cause the more cynically minded quasi-adults to squirm (or at least roll our eyes). We rejuveniles are all for recapturing the joys of kid-dom, but I’m not sure we’re quite so gullible to think that a bar of milk chocolate laced with bits of dehydrated rice is the magic ticket back into a lost childlike wonderland. And it offers yet another reminder that as much as the rejuvenile phenomenon springs from a genuine and healthy impulse to reconnect with a childlike part of ourselves, it’s also being nurtured and encouraged by marketers attempting to reach beyond our critical adult defenses and get us to… buy stuff.
Then again, maybe adults could use the occasional reminder that sometimes contentment isn’t found in responsibility and efficiency but in the warm embrace of a tasty bar of chocolate. Me, I’m a Junior Mint guy.
05.30.06 Rejuvenile Shame Game
The online rental service apartments.com has found a way to milk the shame of young adults who still live with their parents in an entertaining if cringe-inducing promotion aimed at finding the most “freedom-worthy adultescent.”
In a perverse rejuvenile twist on the old “Queen for a Day” shtick, the company is offering $20,000 to the young adult with the most pathetic tale of adultescent woe. Last year’s winner was a 22-year-old woman who shared a bunk bed with her 16-year-old sister. This year the finalists include a 24-year-old woman whose autistic brother blasts Barbara Striesand 12 hours a day. But my favorite has got to be Amber, a 24-year-old Floridian whose parents are comic book freaks – she’s being crowded out of her house by heaps of Captain America action figures.
It’s true that many adults who live at home live in a state of constant embarrassment. While I was interviewing people for the book, so many sources requested anonymity that I began to feel like I was writing about a shameful sexual habit or a top-secret military operation. I can understand the frustration of not being able to get out from under the roof of one’s parents, but I don’t think most adultescents have anything to be so embarrassed about.
The fact is that growing up is just plain more expensive than it was for generations past. Many young adults would be only too happy to “grow up”; they just can’t afford it. And to make matters worse, they’re made to feel like over-indulged hangers-on by elders who are insulated from entry-level tumult. And while it’s easy to characterize adults who live at home as moochers resented by their parents, study after study has found that most parents are happy to spend a few extra years with their kids and that adults often come out more secure and independent than if they were heaved out on their own the moment they turned 18.
So enough with the shame game. How about twenty grand for a well-adjusted adultescent and his welcoming parents?
05.23.06 Underwear for the Not Underage
It’s just plain weird to see a grown man in Underoos, the “underwear that’s fun to wear” favored by kids of the ‘70s and ‘80s. But it shouldn’t be surprising that Fruit of the Loom recently re-introduced Underoos in adult sizes, or that there’s been a run on “little boy underwear” among the fashion-conscious. After all, what we wear beneath our outer-wear is perhaps a truer expression of what really matters to us than what we present to the world. And more and more, what really matters to men is less about bunchy boxers than skivvies printed with fire trucks and superheroes.
Canadian underwear maker Ginch Gonch is doing a booming business in briefs printed with bright primary colors, high contrast piping and prints of everything from popsicles to frankfurters. The company has a perky, homoerotic ad campaign and a motto that cuts right to the quick: “live like a kid.” Others in the underwear biz, including Go Softwear, Unico and Fresh Pair have picked up on the trend, selling $50-a-pop briefs with cartoon prints and kid-style details. “This may not be something people are talking about – but they’re absolutely buying it,” an apparel expert told the website Brand Channel.
In related kiddie fashion news, retailers are now selling foot-attached pajamas in adult sizes – I bought a pair at Target a few years ago, and have since run across an online retailer that is entirely devoted to cashmere and flannel footies. I’d hoped that donning toddler sleepwear would instantly transport me back to a state of stuffed animal-like coziness, but the truth is they left me itchy and claustrophobic. For me anyway, footies are for kids.
05.19.06 Dolls for the Eldery
OK, this is just sad. Japanese toy giant Tomy has begun marketing a talking doll to the so-far underdeveloped market of lonely old ladies. Tomy’s big-eyed, button-nosed dollie feels like a small infant when cradled and comes with a tuft of tawny hair, a pink nightie, and a sound chip that says “I love you.” The objects of all this undying affection: women over the age of 60.
Toy executives say the doll is one of many new toys created in response to the rapidly falling birth rates in Japan; with the juvenile market shrinking, the toy industry is going after older consumers. “We’re redefining the definition of toys,” the president of toy company Takara told the BBC. “We go for teenagers, we go for people in their twenties and thirties, we go for housewives, families and for older people too.”
I’m all for the adult rediscovery of toys, but here’s where my boosterism is drowned by waves of discomfort. Tomy executives claim the dolls are bought by elderly women who “think the dolls are actual grandsons and granddaughters.” Something might have gotten lost in the translation, or this could just be marketing hyperbole, but it’s scary any way you parse it. Toys can be fun, invigorating, stress-relieving and creativity-enhancing when rediscovered by adults, but I think we can all agree they shouldn’t be substitutes for flesh-and-blood relations.
Beyond that, I’ve got a major problem with any toy – or for that matter, any form of entertainment – that plays so fast and loose with the phrase “I love you.” This is one of the main rationales behind the strict No Barney Rule at my house. Apparently, kids don’t seem to take offense when Barney prattles on about how much he loves them, but I swear every time he opens that furry mouth of his and utters yet another unearned intimacy, I’d like to kick him in his big purple nether-regions.
05.15.06 Eau de Play-Doh
‘What better way to celebrate the 50th birthday than by bottling the scent for adults everywhere to enjoy as a reminder to their youth,” said a Play-Doh mucky-muck.
Ridiculous, of course. But also kind of awesome. After all, high-priced perfumes often advertise overtones of baby powder, bubblegum, marzipan, ice cream or even Band-Aids (exhibit A: Luctor et Emergo, a $165-a-bottle “cult fragrance” often compared to Play-Doh). Play-Doh cologne works the same magic without all the fancy-pants European pretense. And best of all: it’s just $19 a bottle.
News of Play-Doh cologne has prompted a hilarious conversation about the enduring appeal of Play-Doh on the Slashdot message boards; someone even unearthed the original patent application to reveal the closely-guarded recipe. Could it be that the secret appeal of the Play-Doh scent is borax?